Monday, 24 January 2011

Bryan Magee - the noble nihilist


My main introduction to philosophy as a teenager was via the Bryan Magee television series Men of Ideas, then his book on Karl Popper - I have since read several other books by him including Confessions of a Philosopher, which I recommend highly.

Magee is worth noting as someone for whom I have very high regard and whom I regard as being wrong about almost everything on which I have read his opinion.


In Confessions of a Philosopher, Magee confirms that he is not merely extremely intelligent, well-read and a lucid explainer - but that he is scrupulously honest and humble.

At the end of his personal odyssey through philosophy, he candidly admits that it has not really led anywhere; and he is clearly dissatisfied with his own tentative conclusions (Magee's favourite philosopher is Schopenhauer, yet he does not regard S. as having succeeded in his aims, and clearly Magee is not satisfied with the position that S. reached).

Magee is remarkable in not having been corrupted by a successful life in academia, in politics (he was even a member of parliament), then the highbrow media.

To work - and to achieve success - in academia, politics and the mass media and retain integrity is remarkable!


And today I have just seen an article in the journal Philosophy in which Magee discusses the reality of the soul and the possibility of immortality from the perspective of old age. And stating that he recognizes that the soul could be real and immortality could be true, acknowledging that he wishes they were real and true, but concluding that he cannot bring himself to believe either.


Bryan Magee. Intimations of mortality. Philosophy (2011), 86: 31-39. Abstract: The nearness of death can lead me to see the empirical world as separate from myself since, only too soon, it will exist without me. This raises the question whether I might partake of some other mode of existence without the empirical world. Logically, such existence may be possible; but our inability to validate any conception of what is actually the case without ultimate reference to experience, or to the possibility of experience, renders us permanently unable to have grounds for believing in the reality of it. This inability does not eliminate the logical possibility, but a logical possibility is all we are left with. And we do know that only the very tiniest proportion of logical possibilities is actualized.


Magee represents for me the tragedy of a decent man, indeed potentially a great man, in our nihilistic culture.

As well as this, Magee had to contend with extreme intelligence, a natural philosophical perspective amplified by advanced professional training and experience, and a pervasive leftism in politics - so he really had very little chance of attaining to wisdom.


In his twilight years Magee resembles a sad (although certainly not self-pitying) Stoic of the Roman Republic living-on under the Empire.

Still striving, still seeking, still acknowledging and holding fast to the transcendental verities (even though he finds it impossible to regard them as being really real).

In another age, Magee might by now have been a wise soul of immense stature; he might have risen to the stature of a Blaise Pascal - as it is, Magee is a tragic figure.

(Albeit, in an era when very few have the dignity to attain tragic status, this is in itself a rare achievement.)


I hope there is still time for Magee to transcend philosophy, to go-behind his assumptions (which he would need to do), and to recover the spontaneous humanity from which he could swiftly think through to a satisfactory conclusion.

Indeed, I believe there is time for this to happen, for there to be a 'happy ending' for Bryan Magee.

And furthermore I believe it will happen - although we may never get to hear about it.